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St. James is a good example of why today's juvenile justice system should be reformed
August 5, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Forty-six years ago last week, a "brilliant" 15-year-old boy in Texas named James Wolcott shot dead his father, his mother, and his 17-year-old sister. He was arrested, charged as an adult with felony murder, but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. The contributing factors: paranoid schizophrenia and an addiction to huffing glue. He also acknowledged irrational hatred for his family. His sister, he said, had a "real bad accent." Acquaintances said he was also angry because his father wouldn't let him go to a peace rally. The boy was committed to a mental hospital. Six years later, he was judged sane and released. Because he had been found not guilty, he was able to inherit his parents' comfortable estate. At that point, he changed his name to James St. James and vanished from the public eye.
Last week, a reporter for The Georgetown, Texas Advocate newspaper tracked down that boy and wrote a story about what he had done with his life since. Professor James David St. James is an award-winning psychology professor at Millikin University in Illinois. College administrators apparently didn't know of St. James's background, but are standing by the professor: "Millikin University has only recently been made aware of Dr. St. James' past. Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James' efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable," Millikin officials said in a statement according to the American-Statesman."
The story has been published in newspapers all over the world, so St. James's privacy is effectively blown. Comments in online forums are predictably outraged and, occasionally, rabid. They range from "hang him!" to "once a murderer, always a murderer" to "why is this killer teaching our children?" to "he served his time" to "leave the man alone." One rather revealing comment at The Daily Mail website said that if this story is true, there must be something wrong with the world. How could it be true that the cold-blooded killer of his parents had gone 46 years without committing another crime and has become a respected member of society? The story offended his rather black and white vision of the world where criminals are supposed to be evil and good people are good and there are no shades of gray.
Personally, I'm in the "leave the man alone" camp. I have often said that our juvenile justice system ought to be geared more towards rehabilitation than punishment. A teenager is not an adult and should not be treated like an adult by the justice system. No matter how brilliant he was, young James Wolcott's brain would not have been fully mature at the age of 15. He would have been less able to control his impulses, far less able to make rational decisions. In his case, the problems of adolescence were magnified by a drug addiction and apparent mental illness. That does not excuse the killing of his family, of course, but I think they are mitigating factors. His later success is a good example of what most professionals know, that teenagers are far more amenable to rehabilitation than are adults. Given a chance, the vast majority of juvenile offenders grow out of illegal behavior and are not criminals as adults.
St. James has helped numerous students and is well-liked and well-respected by them. If he had committed the same crime today, chances are excellent that he would have been locked up for 30 years to life and wouldn't have had a chance of parole until he was in his 50s, something that clearly wouldn't have done much good in his case. I would point to St. James as an example of why it is a bad idea to give such harsh sentences to kids as young as 11 who commit serious crimes.
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